December 22, 2016

Whippings, beatings, and tight couplings for the festive season

Written by Keith JohnstonKeith Johnston

Here is a complexity story for the festive season.  It is about whippings, beatings and tightly coupled systems.

Shock! Horror! Major US manufacturers of whipped cream have said they cannot keep up with the holiday demand for the product.  Normal supplies will resume in January or February.

In the meantime, mixers will be dragged out of the appliance garage or perhaps even the wonderful hand beater (see picture) will be rediscovered in the back of the utensil drawer.

The proximate cause of the crisis is an explosion in August at a chemical plant in Florida.  Tragically one worker at the facility was killed when two gas tankers, as well as a nitrous oxide holding tank, exploded at a loading dock.  Nitrous oxide is the propellant used in whipped cream canisters.  It is also an inhalation anesthetic used in dental surgeries – sometimes called laughing gas by its giggly, floaty recipients.  With nitrous oxide in short supply, medical uses have been prioritized.  Additional supplies of the gas are being shipped from Europe.

This is a compelling little example of what happens when we make systems more and more efficient.  Redundancy is removed, economies of scale are achieved, production and ownership gets concentrated in fewer hands.  The system becomes more vulnerable to disruption.  When surprising events occur production is no longer just-in-time; Reddi-wip is no longer ready.

Even in a market as vast as North America, only two companies produce nitrous oxide from five manufacturing plants and they supply three packing facilities that can the bulk of America’s whipped creams.  It is wonderfully efficient when it is all working and it is vulnerable to big impacts when breaks occur in the supply chain.

Previous examples of North American food production vulnerabilities (from waffle shortages to dangerous spinach) can be found here.

And back home in New Zealand, Marmite lovers like me are still recovering from Marmageddon – the shock of almost two years of lost or rationed supplies after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake destroyed the manufacturing plants.  If you did not love it, you could not hope to understand.  And, like complexity thinking, it is an acquired taste.

As the Christmas carol goes: Whip the bowl and feel more jolly!  Fa-la-la-la-la-la.

3 thoughts on “Whippings, beatings, and tight couplings for the festive season”

  1. Stuart Reid says:

    I had never heard of your Marmageddon! I wonder if you’ll ever feel fully safe again…

    I thought this was a really good illustration of the flipside of removing redundancy from systems, and how that introduces vulnerability. We had a similar experience in the UK a few years ago: petrol very quickly became scarce as a result of co-ordinated protests by farmers.

    1. Keith Johnston Keith Johnston says:

      Thanks Stuart
      It also illustrates the vulnerability of many of our systems to criminal or terrorist-inspired disruption and then the reinforcing feedbacks involved in terror and our own fears.

  2. Scott Nicol says:

    I love the way the beater fills up the draw and makes the opening of it a celebration each time. I also love the way it is a local low tech solution to a global issue. Lets look for more of them. Terry Prachett was compassionate to Marmageddon and in my corgi paperback of The last Continent on page 250 he beautifully describes how to make your own – Boil up beer with vegies and lots and lots of salt. Drink more beer. Boil said mix till it seems to be unappetising then OMG you have a cultural icon.

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